Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A belated WOW: Reveling in a "Rusty Squeezebox"

I began this post on Mozart's birthday (January 27). Once I had written way too much (my discussion had gotten extremely technical and academic), I trashed it. So here is another try.

"On the page, it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri
Thus begins the first discussion (and the appearance) of Mozart's music in the multiple Academy Award-winning film, Amadeus. The piece? Serenade, K. 371 (370a), better known as the Gran Partita. In seven glorious movements and clocking in at about 50 minutes, it is Mozart's longest purely instrumental composition.

It is part of a wind music tradition dating back centuries, from public tower concerts, known as ablassen, to the court bands maintained by many of the wealthy patrons of the Classical era. Beginning as sextets (pairs of oboes, horns, and bassoons), the introduction of the clarinet established what would become the standard wind octet. Composers would write original music for these Harmoniemusik ensembles, and scores of arrangers would take up the tunes of the popular operas of the day. The sounds of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, and much more filled the streets as well as the opera houses.

But Mozart took the ensemble several steps further, writing for pairs of oboes, clarinets, and basset horns, four horns, two bassoons, and contrabassoon (or contrabass). The sonic possibilities here are much more numerous, and Mozart exploits them to the fullest.

It has been surmised that Mozart wrote the Gran Partita as a wedding gift to Constanze in 1781. However, given that Emperor Joseph II founded his famous wind group in 1782, as well as other contradictory evidence, I posit that it was written sometime between 1783 and 1785. But, in terms of WOW, that is totally unimportant. 

The first movement is in true Sonata-Allegro form, within an amazing introduction. That, in itself, sets the stage for what is to come. Played by a Scottish "band" here it is:

Jumping ahead to the third movement (the "rusty squeezebox"), it is easy to become enraptured by the glorious sounds. The impact of the basset horns is beyond measure; with all of these darker-hued colors, we are awash in richness. Here we are with Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

There are many joys that await listeners with an hour to spare. And here are some selected recordings.
  • The Vienna Philharmonic Players, Furtwangler (1947)
  • Amadeus Winds, Hogwood
  • London Winds, Michael Collins (2010)
  • Netherlands Wind Ensemble, De Waart (2011)
and many, many more. Check out www.arkivmusic for details.


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